Field Assistant Positions on Marion Island: 2016-2017 - NOW CLOSED

Sealer Christiaan Conradie weighing an Antarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus gazella) pup at Marion Island. © Ryan Reisinger.

Sealer Christiaan Conradie weighing an Antarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus gazella) pup at Marion Island. © Ryan Reisinger.

Three field assistant positions (2 x "Sealers" and 1 x "Whaler") are once again available at Marion Island, April 2015 - May 2016. All three positions are within the research programme "Marion Island Marine Mammals - sensitivity to global drivers of environmental change".

For instructions and more information:
Mammalogist - Seals
Mammalogist - Killer Whales

Read the advertisments carefully and follow the application instructions therein. An overview of the programme can be found here, and by looking at our publications. Further information about the positions and a background to the programme can be found on our programme history, 'working with us' and FAQ pages.

Enquiries and cover letters may be sent to Dr Nico de Bruyn (pjndebruyn at

DEADLINE: 5 October 2015

MIMMP fellow comment on animal telemetry in SCIENCE

MIMMP research fellow, Trevor McIntyre, has published a letter in Science cautioning researchers to continuously be aware of the potential effects of placing tracking devices on animals. While he does not argue the value of tracking studies, these should be done with due ethical consideration. He includes some examples from our Marion Island efforts in his comment on a review published earlier in Science by Kays et al. ("Terrestrial animal tracking as an eye on life and planet"). 

An elephant seal at Marion Island with a satellite linked tracking device.

An elephant seal at Marion Island with a satellite linked tracking device.

Introducing the 2015/16 Marion Island SEAL AND KILLER WHALE field personnel

The 2015 5-week Relief voyage (Takeover) ended a couple of weeks ago, with the SA Agulhas II bringing home the 2014/2015 killer whale and seal field personnel, as well as the Principal Investigator and colleagues. The latter mentioned assisted with debriefing of the returning field personnel and training of the 'newbies'. 

The 'new' killer whale and seal field scientists for the 2015/16 thirteen-month long expedition to Marion Island are almost entering their second month alone since the ship departed with all the Takeover - and previous expedition team members.



Marion fur seals featured on BBC... again!

Marion's Antarctic fur seals are sexually harassing king penguins.... again! Check out the latest feature in BBC EARTH:


....regarding our latest paper in Polar Biology:


This follows on an initial paper in 2008 reporting on the first such observed case in 2006: , which also caused somewhat of a media storm.

The Effect of Satellite Tagging and Biopsy Sampling on Killer Whales

Satellite Tagging and Biopsy Sampling of Killer Whales at Subantarctic Marion Island: Effectiveness, Immediate Reactions and Long-Term Responses
PLOS ONE 9(11): e111835

Cetaceans spend the vast majority of their lives under water and are highly mobile and often wide-ranging, which makes them a challenging taxon to study. Two field methods – tissue biopsy sampling and satellite-linked telemetry (or satellite tagging) – are becoming widely used in cetacean studies because they allow the collection of data which are difficult or impossible to obtain by other means. Tissues obtained by biopsy sampling can be used for a range of analyses including genetics, stable isotopes, fatty acids, contaminants, hormones and trace elements and can so address aspects such as population structure, diet and animal health. Satellite tagging can elucidate the movement, distribution, behaviour and habitat use of cetaceans in relation to their physical environment. Such data are critical to understanding the ecology of a species and its environmental role and, consequently, are vital to conservation or management efforts. The need for such information is particularly acute given the anthropogenic pressures many such populations and species face.

However, researchers must carefully consider their methods not only from an animal welfare perspective, but also to ensure the scientific rigour and validity of their results. The latter point is critical where methods may affect the subsequent behaviour or performance of individuals, thereby biasing the results obtained. From an ethical perspective researchers have an onus to assess the tradeoffs between the ‘importance’ of research, its likely benefit and its effect on animals before conducting work; from a scientific perspective the responsibility is to design robust and valid studies. Researchers should further evaluate animal effects and research methods post-hoc, refine these where needed and, importantly, publish such results.

We have been satellite tagging and biopsy sampling killer whales at Marion Island since 2011 and in our new paper in PLOS ONE we looked at the immediate reactions of the animals to being tagged or sampled and whether killer whales showed any longer term responses.

We never observed severe reactions to tagging or biopsy sampling, there was typically no observable reaction or a flinch, shake of the body, some acceleration and/or an immediate dive. We analysed individual sighting histories over several years, and we could detect no significant mid- (1 month) or long-term (<24 months) changes in killer whale occurrence where we tagged and biopsy sampled.

However, we will continue long-term monitoring of individuals after biopsy sampling and tagging to provide continuous assessment of potential impacts on the study animals. We recommend that such monitoring should be implemented in other studies where animals are biopsied or tagged, especially considering the increased use of these methods.

Read the full paper in PLOS ONE:

This is an emotive issue which is likely to elicit some strong responses.

New paper reveals a widespread historical killer whale population bottleneck

MSc student Charlene Janse van Rensburg, principal investigator Nico de Bruyn and our collaborator Rus Hoelzel are among the authors of a new study examing the historical population structure of killer whales worldwide:

Killer whale nuclear genome and mtDNA reveal widespread population bottleneck during the last glacial maximum
Moura AE, Janse van Rensburg C, Pilot M, Tehrani A, Best PB, Thornton M, Plön S, de Bruyn PJN, Worley KC, Gibbs RA, Dahlheim ME, Hoelzel AR
Molecular Biology and Evolution 31(5): 1121-1131
DOI: 10.1093/molbev/msu058

Joseph Caspermeyer, of the journal's press office wrote:

"In the ocean, the killer whale rules as a top predator, feeding on everything from seals to sharks. Being at the apex of the food chain, killer whales’ geographic distribution and population size can also serve as a sentinel species regarding past and future ocean ecosystems and environmental change.

In a recent study in Molecular Biology and Evolution, Moura et al. (2014) assembled 2.23 Gb of northern hemisphere killer whale genomic data and mitochondrial DNA from 616 samples worldwide. Would the data analysis reveal patterns of past climate change that may have impacted food availability? Also, what happened to the diversity of killer whales over time during the last great ice age?

From this data set, the authors used an evolutionary coalescent model to conclude that killer whales were stable in population size during most of the Pleistocene (2.5 million–11,000 years ago) followed by a rapid decline and bottleneck during the last great period of ice age (110,000–12,000 years ago). Although most populations declined, a population off of southern Africa remained stable. Consistent with the population bottleneck, they also showed low genetic diversity, with the exception of a refuge population off the coast of South Africa.

“Our data supports the idea of a population bottleneck affecting killer whales over a wide geographic range and leading to the loss of diversity,” said Moura et al. (2014). “The South African population stands out as an exception, which may be due to local conditions that were productive and stable over the last million years or so.”

Thus, the recent ice age may have been detrimental to the ocean’s top predator and significantly affected diversity among living populations."

From doi: 10.1093/molbev/msu066

2014 Annual Amy Jacot-Guillarmod Memorial Lecture

Nico de Bruyn will be presenting the 2014 Amy Jacot-Guillarmod Memorial Lecture of the Royal Society of South Africa (Eastern Cape Branch).

His talk is entitled “At world’s end: science on the most remote piece of land on
the planet” and deals with his experiences researching seals and penguins on Bouvet Island - considered to be the most remote place on earth.

Tuesday, 3rd June, 2014
Zoo Major Lecture Theatre, Biological Sciences Building, Prince Alfred
street, Rhodes University Campus, Grahamstown.
6:30 pm

Refreshments will be served.  Everyone is welcome.